Trash and the Incinerator: Detroit's Dirty Truth

April 6, 2012

By Ahmina Maxey
EMEAC Associate Director
Stand Up! Speak Out! Coordinator

In 1986 the city of Detroit constructed the world's largest municipal incinerator. It was lauded by the city's government and citizens as it was expected to bring economic prosperity to Detroit. It was thought that industries would be attracted to the city because at the time incineration was viewed as the safest, most cost-effective waste disposal method. Although many Detroit residents were in support of the incinerator, there were some citizens and environmental groups that were not. This group, largely made up of suburban environmental groups, was known as the Evergreen Alliance. They felt that the incinerator was a major environmental and health risk, and actively protested against its construction. Their campaign however was unsuccessful.

The concerns the Evergreen Alliance had about the Detroit incinerator unfortunately rang true. The incinerator is one of the worst polluters in Wayne County for criteria pollutants. It emits nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead into the atmosphere - pollutants which can be toxic to human health. Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide both contribute to the formation of ozone which is harmful to respiratory health. In addition the toxins emitted by the incinerator are particularly harmful to children’s health. Particulate matter emissions have led to asthma hospitalization rates for children living around the incinerator to be 3 times the national average.

The Detroit incinerator has also proved to be a money pit for the city of Detroit. The expected economic benefits of the incinerator were never realized. The incinerator was sold in 1991 to private investors to pay off city debt, and although the city no longer owned the incinerator citizens were forced to continue paying bonds owed on it. In total Detroit's residents have paid over $1.2 billion in debt because of the incinerator.

Since the incinerat­or’s opening in the late 1980’s it has caused nothing but environmental, health, and economic strife in the city of Detroit. Recently the the incinerator was bought and renamed Detroit Renewable Energy in an effort to “green wash” the facility although it remains a toxic, polluting facility. Zero Waste Detroit (ZWD), a coalition of organizations advocating for the City of Detroit to move toward a waste recovery system and away from incineration, work hard to hold Detroit Renewable Power accountable for their actions. When residents in the neighborhood began to complain of odors coming from the incinerator in the fall of 2011, ZWD engaged the community to report this information to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). As a result, Detroit Renewable Power received three notices of odor violation. Zero Waste Detroit has worked for over 7 years to push the City of Detroit to stop sending their trash to the incinerator, and although City Council seems receptive to the idea the Mayor does not. However, with continued community engagement and education on the environmental, health, and economic benefits of recycling our efforts will not be for naught.

EMEAC is a member of the Zero Waste Detroit coalition, a group of organizations advocating for curbside recycling, a materials recovery system that would bring jobs and economic development to city, and an end to waste incineration. The coalition is made up of over 15 organizations representing the environmental, environmental justice, faith-based, civic, and legal communities of Detroit. If you would like to support Zero Waste Detroit and their work, or report odors coming from the incinerator, please visit their website at

Here are Ten Top Reasons for opposing HB 4265 and 4266:

Why Yard Waste Doesn’t Belong in Landfills
10) More energy would be saved by composting and source reduction than would be generated by landfilling it.
9) Increasing organic material in landfills will increase greenhouse gas production and eventual release.
8) Landfills are an inefficient technology for energy production.
7) Organics make up a significant portion of the waste stream and have the potential to increase waste diversion dramatically.
6) Compost is valued for its nutrient content, is used as a soil amendment and for erosion control and stormwater management on farms, adjacent to roadways, and in environmental rehabilitation efforts.
5) Michigan has a well-developed infrastructure for composting yard clippings and yard waste provides an important bulking agent for the composting of other organics such as food waste.
4) Cost to municipalities and residents to dispose of yard clippings is likely to be more than composting yard clippings.
3) Composting yard clippings creates more jobs than landfilling.
2) Michigan has a very low recycling rate. Landfilling yard clippings will lower our ranking further.
1) The yard clippings disposal ban is one of the few tools Michigan has to limit solid waste importation.

The Senate Energy and Technology Committee will be considering HB 4265 and HB 4266, exempting yard waste from the landfill ban, which passed the Legislature last week. As members of Zero Waste Detroit, we urge you to contact members of the Energy and Technology Committee and urge them to oppose this legislation.

Zero Waste Detroit, among many, opposes these bills for numerous reasons—economic as well as environmental. These bills will not save collection costs, as source separation is still required for three years. The bills will greatly damage the composting industry. Job creation from composting yard waste is multiples of that from disposal (landfill or incineration).

Composting is a low-tech, environmentally sound, cost-effective, and decentralized method for managing yard clippings and other organic wastes, without the long-term impacts of disposal. Michigan’s compost industry provides jobs and a valuable soil amending end-product to farmers, landscapers, governments, and residents.

Please take the time as soon as possible to meet with Senators from your own district to help them understand the impact of these bills on you and/or your business or organization. Your Senators will be closer to home over the spring break, doing business at the in-district offices, holding coffee shop meetings, and more.

Find you Senator here.

Senate Energy & Technology Committee members are:

Mike Nofs (R) Committee Chair, 19th District
John Proos (R) Majority Vice Chair, 21st District
Rick Jones (R) 24th District
Jim Marleau (R) 12th District
Tonya Schuitmaker (R) 20th District
Howard Walker (R) 37th District
Hoon-Yung Hopgood (D) Minority Vice Chair, 8th District
Steven M Bieda (D) 9th District
Coleman Young II (D) 1st District
Committee Clerk, (517) 373-5307

You can find more information on the bills at the Michigan Recycling Coalition's website.